This lecture covers the history of Mesopotamia from the disintegration of the Sumerian Empire to the great Bronze Age collapse. We'll explore the destructive force of the Elamites and the Hittites as well as the imperial ambitions of the Babylonians, the Mittani and the Assyrians.
Heirs of the Sumerians
By the mid-20th century BCE, Sumerian Civilization had already been through a lot:
- It had been co opted by the Akkadians
- It had been conquered by the Guti.
- It had thrown off its invaders, and started a new Sumerian Empire with Ur as its capitol
Then, in 1950 BCE, a new group of people entered the scene, the Elamites, a fierce people living to the southeast of Mesopotamia. The Elamites, like the Guti before them, seem to have been more interested in pillaging than empire building. It would take another thousand years before the Elamites would mount their own bid for control of the empire. Nevertheless, the Elamites destroyed the power structure that held the Sumerian empire together. After a thousand years, the Sumero-Akkadian empire was dead at last.
Babylon was the religious center of southern Mesopotamia
Then around 1830, the city of Babylon took advantage of the distraction of these two power players and established itself as an independent kingdom. Yet Babylon was small compared to the older kingdoms around it. Surrounded by enemies, Babylon extended its power slowly. It would take the better part of a century before a Babylonian leader was brazen enough to attempt to recreate the grand Mesopotamian empire. That leader's name was Hammurabi.
Hammurabi inherited a central, but rather unimportant kingdom of Mesopotamia. He led a well disciplined fighting force to the conquest of his Amorite rivals, Isin and Larsa, as well as the already ancient cities of Ur and Uruk. By the time he was done, Babylon would be the seat of an empire stretching for thousands of miles. But Hammurabi was not sated with mere conquest.
He wanted to build an empire to last. Like Ur Nammu, he established a centralized bureaucracy with taxes. He rebuilt old imperial roads and cleared out the canals, allowing trade to form once again. Like all Babylonian kings, Hammurabi was a member of the priestly caste and was likely considered an avatar of the city's patron deity, Marduk. During his reign, Hammurabi established Babylon as the holiest of Mesopotamian cities, where all future emperors would need to be crowned. Yet perhaps Hammurabi's greatest accomplishment was his Code of Laws. It was likely inspired by the code of Ur Nammu, the law of the last great Mesopotamian empire.
The code of Ur Nammu was the law of the last great Mesopotamian empire
While the Babylonians seem to have perfected Sumerian designs for civilization, they show little signs of invention in this period. This copying of Sumerian accomplishments would typify all the empires that attempted to gain control of Mesopotamia. Indeed, the relics of Babylonian culture could not be easily discerned from those of the Sumerians for hundreds of years. They built their palaces, temples and Ziggurats all along Sumerian lines, adorning them with frescoes, glazed tiles and stone steles.
Like the Sumerians, the Babylonians built with mud brick. Some believe this is because they suffered from a lack of stone. Yet it is interesting to note that the later Assyrians, who had plenty of stone at their disposal, continued to build with mud brick after their rise to power. This suggests that the choice of mud brick might have been a cultural appeal to an old source of legitimacy as much as it was a material necessity. To appear legitimate, every culture to come would try to replicate the achievements of the Sumerians.
Babylon would continue to be the seat of the Mesopotamian empire until its sack around 1600 BCE by the Hittites. The Hittites were a warlike people, from the city of Hattusa in Anatolia. They were big fans of chariots, which they used to great effect. They were also excellent metalworkers. They were also perhaps the first empire to see the value of iron. The Hittites sacked Babylon, tearing apart the Babylonian Empire, but made no attempt to establish themselves there, preferring to remain in Anatolia.
They borrowed writing along with many forms of art and architecture from the Sumerians. Yet, as an empire separate from the Sumerians, and ancient in its own right, the Hittites also developed their own architecture. Their most noteworthy contributions are the bit-hilani, a sort of pillared front porch, and the double gateway with corbeled arch - the best surviving example of which is the Lion Gate at Hattusa, the ancient Hittite capital. Hittites raids of the Babylonian Empire plunged the region into chaos, allowing new groups to emerge.
The bit-hilani is a type of pillared front porch found in Hittite architecture
The foremost of these were the Hurrians, also known as the Mittani. They filled the vacuum left by the Hittites, building an empire in northern Mesopotamia. Pressing east into the lands of the Assyrians and west into Anatolia.
The Mittani left very little behind in terms of material culture; almost everything we know of them comes from references from other cultures. Still their empire survived until around 1350 BCE, when a battle of succession left them vulnerable to a new Hittite assault. This weakened the Mittani enough for the Assyrians to overthrow their masters and create their own empire.
The city of Assur had been a powerful player in Mesopotamian politics since at least the 25th century BCE. Likely founded as a Sumerian administrative center, Assur had been dominated by Akkadians, Amorites, Babylonians and Hurrians. Now was their time to seize control. They did so with great alacrity, devouring northern Mesopotamia.
Where the Babylonians had been farmers and merchants ruled by priests, the Assyrians were first and foremost warriors. While their kings might have traced their descent from the city's patron diety, Ashur, it was in essence a military aristocracy. Yet, like the Babylonians before them, the Assyrians assiduously copied the accomplishments of their predecessors and had not yet begun to generate a unique culture of their own.
Meanwhile, southern Mesopotamia was being forcibly unified under the rule of the Kassite Babylonians. Although the Kassite capitol was actually Mari, the Babylonians had so established their city as an imperial seat that the Kassite kings needed to be considered Babylonians to be considered Emperors of their region. They abandoned Mari, early on, and established the longest lasting Babylonian dynasty, which would survive almost 600 years.
The Assyrians, Hittites and Kassite Babylonians vied with one another for power
This struggle for power would continue until roughly 1200 BCE, when a series of invasions from all directions tore bronze age civilization to shreds.
From the north, Phrygians began raiding Assyria, and Thracians swept into the lands of the Hittites. From the east, the Elamites invaded once more, pillaging and burning Babylon for at least the fourth time. From the deserts to the south, a new people, the Arameans, poured into Mesopotamia, making travel and trade between cities very dangerous indeed. And in the west, a mysterious group of invaders known only as the sea peoples, crushed kingdoms along the Mediterranean from Egypt to Greece.
Trade ground to a halt, populations plummeted, literacy all but disappeared, entire empires disappeared overnight and civilization itself seemed to teeter on the brink of annihilation. This period is known as the Bronze age collapse. Many civilizations would not survive this catastrophe. The Hittites vanished without a trace, and the civilizations that survived would take over 300 years to recover.